A few decades ago, the legendary Canadian sportswriter Trent Frayne covered Wimbledon for The Globe and Mail.
In all his dispatches from the All England Club, Frayne had some fun with the way the Brits pronounce grass and used the spelling ‘grawse’ whenever mentioning the hallowed turf.
And it certainly came up often because the Wimbledon surface is so central to the competition and so different from any other, and played on so infrequently.
That changes a bit this year with the extra week between Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Now there’s basically a week to wind down after the French Open, a week to play for real in ATP 500 level tournaments in Halle (Germany) and Queen’s Club (London) and a week to fine tune and relax heading into The Championships. All the big names except for world No. 1 Novak Djokovic are in action at either Halle or Queen’s Club.
For the women, there are also the three weeks with two Premier-level events in England: this week in Birmingham with Simona Halep, Ana Ivanovic, Carla Suarez Navarro, Angelique Kerber and Genie Bouchard as headliners and next week the traditional (since 1974) Eastbourne tournament that will feature defending Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, Bouchard, Caroline Wozniacki, Agnieszka Radwanska, Svetlana Kuznetsova and 2014 winner Madison Keys.
As usual, there will be no warm-up tournaments for Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams.
Grawse, make that grass, should certainly play into the games of Bouchard and Milos Raonic, who won his opening match at Queen’s Club on Monday with a 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 victory over British wild card James Ward. A year ago at Wimbledon, Bouchard had a spectacular run to the final while Raonic finally found his grass-court legs, making it all the way to the semifinals and a match-up against seven-time champion Roger Federer.
Bouchard, ever since winning the Wimbledon juniors in 2012 and scoring a Centre Court debut 6-3, 6-3 win over Ana Ivanovic in 2013, has said that the London SW 19 event is her favourite.
Things never went quite as smoothly for Raonic – he only played the juniors once, reaching the second round as a qualifier in 2008.
Then, he didn’t win more than one match – although the right hip injury early in his second match in 2011 was a bad break – until last year when he made it through five rounds to reach the final four.
He lost his only pre-Wimbledon 2014 match to Peter Gojowczyk of Germany in Halle (after a run to the quarter-finals at Roland Garros) but finally got the knack on grass defeating Matthew Ebden, Jack Sock and Lukasz Kubot in the first three rounds without losing his serve. In the round-of-16 and the quarters, he beat both Nick Kyrgios and Kei Nishikori in four sets, losing his serve just once in each match.
His run came to an end in the semifinals when he lost 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to Federer but that was not the easiest situation – playing for the first time on the most revered tennis court in the world and against a Wimbledon living legend.
In a media release last week, Wimbledon included this fact about the grass, “The Championships’ playing height is 8mm. The court is composed of 100% rye grass.”
There was another interesting mention. While it had often been assumed that the day off on the first Sunday was to appease neighbours who have to tolerate a fortnight of thousands of tennis fans invading their space, the release claimed, “contrary to popular belief, Middle Sunday is not about tradition. It is a crucial part of the groundstaff’s maintenance of the grass courts, as it allows them to be thoroughly watered, both to recover from the previous week’s play, and to provide the best possible conditions for the week to come.”
On one of this reporter’s first visits to Wimbledon in the 1970s, a group of players including American Gene Mayer and his brother Sandy were discussing playing on grass. One said that it was really important not to lose your stroke on grass, not to stop hitting through the ball normally because there can be a tendency to become a bit hesitant because the bounce might not always be predictable.
In that vein, Andre Agassi, during Wimbledon, would actually go practice on a hard court to, as he explained it, get back his stroking groove on a court with a true bounce.
There’s no doubt that the grass has changed – or more accurately, the ground under the blades of rye grass. A few years ago head groundsman Eddie Seaward confirmed that all the talk about slower courts had much more to do with the composition of the earth bed underneath, which had been made firmer to prevent wear and tear on the court. That allowed the ball to bounce higher and not skid through as low and fast.
A lot has been made of the change in the men’s game from serve-and-volley tennis, highlighted (low-lighted?) by the Pete Sampras – Goran Ivanisevic finals in 1994 and 1998 with their alarming absence of rallies.
In 2003, when he won Wimbledon for the first time, Federer served-and-volleyed about 50 per cent of the time on his first serve. The following year it was only half that number and by 2012, when he won his seventh Wimbledon, it was below 10 per cent.
But the percentage more than doubled to 23 in his first five rounds a year ago in numbers cited by American writer Carl Bialik.
Sure the courts have slowed down a bit, but grass-court tennis is always going to be an advantage to the server, or the serve-and-volleyer if he or she does so judiciously.
Anyone who watched the Rafael Nadal – Viktor Troicki final in Stuttgart on Sunday had to be struck by the large number of points that were won on aces or service winners. And Nadal and Troicki are not the biggest servers in the game.
So Raonic, in particular, should be significantly advantaged on the Wimbledon lawns.
But Wimbledon, as with each of the Grand Slams, has other challenges. One of them is weather. It’s probably an exaggerated impression that it rains a lot during the famous fortnight – actually the phrase “Wimbledon weather” used to be synonymous with pleasant summer days in London.
The problem is that any precipitation at all – from the finest of drizzles to a mere spitting of moisture – can make the courts slippery and unplayable from both a safety and wear point of view.
Many years ago, American Jimmy Arias, who ranked as high as No. 5 in the 1984, had an experience that soured him on Wimbledon. “I played in 1985 and 1987 and I was scheduled first day, first match – and I didn’t play Monday and I didn’t play Tuesday and I played late Wednesday,” Arias once recalled. “It rained. And I’d have to sit there because the first match they never cancel until the day’s over. So I would sit there from 10 in the morning until seven at night. I couldn’t take it anymore, I said ‘forget it, I’m not going to do that again.’”
As it turned out he did not – never again returning to Wimbledon before retiring in 1994.
The retractable roof on Centre Court makes only a fractional contribution in case of rain during the first two days because there are a total of 128 opening-round men’s and women’s matches on the order of play.
Raonic, 24, Bouchard, 21, and other young players like Vasek Pospisil, 24, are gradually getting accustomed to the vagaries of grass-court tennis, to the overall Wimbledon experience and to all the factors that make it such a challenge to win the most precious title in the sport.
Roger’s white out
“I love Wimbledon but they’ve gone too far now.” Those are the words of seven-time champion about the white dress code at Wimbledon.
In 1963, Wimbledon instituted a “predominately white” rule that lasted until 1995 when the rule became a much more stringent “almost entirely white.”
Federer has also said that, “the rules have become ridiculously strict.”
It’s hard not to agree with Federer. With an “almost entirely white” restriction on Wimbledon dress, there’s no room for any creativity in design and, as a result, no opportunity for individuality among the players. Take a look at the pictures here – Stefan Edberg on the left with his adidas SE shirt from 1988, and John McEnroe in his classic Sergio Tacchini top from 1981. Neither is outrageously colourful but both would be illegal under today’s draconian dress code.
Traditional white is nice to have at Wimbledon and fits with the grass courts, but the current limits are extreme and a throwback to the garden-party days of the tournament in the 19th century.
This writer always thought it would have been cool if Andre Agassi had a shirt with just as series of A’s – AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA – across the front of his white shirt. But that’s a no-go at Wimbledon. The current “almost entirely white” policy is an antiquated regimentation that doesn’t belong in the tennis of our times. It stifles imagination that could add more colour and personality to the modern-day stars of the game.
Below is the actual dress policy from Wimbledon.com:
The following refers to all clothing, including tracksuits and sweaters, worn on The Championship courts both for practice and for matches at Wimbledon.
- Competitors must be dressed in suitable tennis attire that is almost entirely white and this applies from the point at which the player enters the court surround.
- White does not include off white or cream.
- There should be no solid mass or panel of colouring. A single trim of colour around the neckline and around the cuff of the sleeve is acceptable but must be no wider than one centimetre (10mm).
- Colour contained within patterns will be measured as if it is a solid mass of colour and should be within the one centimetre (10mm) guide. Logos formed by variations of material or patterns are not acceptable.
- The back of a shirt, dress, tracksuit top or sweater must be totally white.
- Shorts, skirts and tracksuit bottoms must be totally white except for a single trim of colour down the outside seam no wider than one centimetre (10mm).
- Caps, headbands, bandanas, wristbands and socks must be totally white except for a single trim of colour no wider than one centimetre (10mm).
- Shoes must be almost entirely white, including the soles. Large manufacturers’ logos are not encouraged. The grass court shoes must adhere to the Grand Slam rules. In particular shoes with pimples around the outside of the toes shall not be permitted. The foxing around the toes must be smooth.
- Any undergarments that either are or can be visible during play (including due to perspiration) must also be completely white except for a single trim of colour no wider than one centimetre (10mm). In addition, common standards of decency are required at all times.
- Medical supports and equipment should be white if possible but may be coloured if absolutely necessary.
A more relaxed dress code operates at the Aorangi Park practice courts.
So, the Aorangi practice courts (above) are the only place on the grounds of the All England Club where players don’t have to be lily white.
The seeding facts
Every year people wonder about the Wimbledon seeding procedure – here it is spelled out clearly:
The seeds are the top 32 players on the ATP World Tour ranking list, BUT then rearranged on a surface-based system. Since 2002 a seeding committee has not been required for the Gentlemen’s Singles following an agreement made with the ATP. The seeding order is determined using an objective and transparent system to reflect more accurately an individual player’s grass court achievements:
The formula is:
- Take the ATP Ranking points at 22 June 2015
- Add 100% of the points earned for all grass court tournaments in the past 12 months
- Add 75% of the points earned for the best grass court tournament in the 12 months before that.
The seeding order follows the WTA ranking list except where, in the opinion of the committee, a change is necessary to produce a balanced draw.
When Milos’ coach had hair like Milos
Once upon a time…. 😳pic.twitter.com/EtdBHlhVkr
— Ivan Ljubicic (@theljubicic) June 8, 2015